Each of the three Short Subject categories offers something unique and extreme when compared to the other two. For Animated Short, you have the biggest variety of artistic styles, as animation comes in just about all shapes and sizes. For Live Action Short, you usually have more international fare than the other two, as well as the biggest spectrum of stories being told.
With Documentary Short, the big difference is in the endless presentation angles. Some films are observational. Others involve narration and interviews. Still more are deeply personal, interactive pieces of social and political advocacy. It’s also the one discipline of the Short program that realistically allows the filmmakers themselves to be a part of the story, to whatever extent they desire or feel is appropriate.
Whichever way they decide, it’s a risk. If someone keeps themselves out of the proceedings, they can give the film a more objective look, letting the images or interview subjects speak for themselves. At the same time, depending on the subject matter, that can also make the film feel detached from the lived experience of the audience. However, if they opt for a more hands-on approach, the opposite dangers present themselves. Sure you can give the film a more personal feel, helping the audience link to the story and engage because there’s an avatar for their viewing, but you’re also gambling that you won’t wear out your welcome and alienate people.
And to be clear, there are real stakes to this work, not just awards. People die to make these films sometimes. Directors, producers, sources, and even random crew members can be imprisoned or worse depending on how repressive their subject might be, and how eager the powerful are to institute swift reprisals. Watch any documentary – feature or short – about oppressive government in Russia, China, or any other non-democratic state. You’ll see a plethora of workers listed in the credits as “Anonymous” for their own safety, their contributions known only to themselves and the people at the top of the production.
This is exactly why they shouldn’t ever be relegated to the sidelines for the sake of corporate greed. Thankfully, this year’s field doesn’t feature anything where people had to put their lives on the line to make their films, as this particular group goes for more inspirational and introspective fare. But even then, the principle stands, because these films are about educating people and exposing them to stories they likely wouldn’t otherwise know. They’re about honoring those who came before and left an impact beyond anything imaginable. They’re about lessons learned and wisdom gained through the benefit of age, hindsight, and perspective.
So of course, get those fuckers out of here. And now for out next category, Most On Fleek Dopeness in a Disney Live-Action Remake, Brought to You By Pepsi Max Zero with Sugar!
We all live in Hell.
This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are…
Audible – Matthew Ogens and Geoff McLean
A somewhat unintentional way – but a welcome one – in which Documentary Short also distinguishes itself from the other two Short categories is in access to the nominated films. Three of the entries, including this one, are distributed by Netflix (who’ve made a cottage industry out of short docs in recent years), so you can watch them right now if you can’t make it to a screening. A fourth is an “Op-Doc” by the New York Times, and is available on their YouTube channel. The final one is also on YouTube if you search for it, but it’s not from an official account, so it may be taken down. However, it will be available on HBO on March 30, which is sadly after the Oscars, but at least it’ll be available.
Audible is the story of a high school football team, one that’s maintained a multi-year winning streak and is considered one of the best in the country. The thing that separates them from every other major high school football program in America? All the players and staff are deaf.
Yes, the film focuses specifically on the Orioles from the Maryland School for the Deaf, a team that plays other deaf schools around the country as well as local hearing schools, and have found ways to dominate in any situation. It’s kind of amazing to see how all the players work as a unit, communicating in ways that opposing teams largely can’t prepare for, turning their disability into a pure strategic advantage. The movie (given a PG-13 rating by the MPA; it’s rare when a short film of any kind screens for a rating) spends most of its time on senior Amaree, who is trying to rebuild his home life as well as his sporting one after the team suffers its first loss in several years.
Amaree is a very interesting subject. He’s somewhat dating one of the cheerleaders, he’s trying to reconnect with his father, a pastor who walked out on the family when he was an infant, and keeping up his studies. He has a cochlear implant, but curiously he barely uses it, opting only to plug it in, ironically enough, when he’s listening to music as a way to zone out. Most of us would probably try to detach from our senses for such a purpose, while he actively turns on the one he lost in infancy due to meningitis. Most importantly, he and his teammates have dedicated the season to a boy named Teddy, one of their friends who transferred to a hearing school and soon committed suicide from constant bullying and stress.
A lot of the film plays out like a Hollywood sports movie, including training montages, lots of slow motion action shots in games, and swelling inspirational music. What separates it from a technical standpoint is the rather clever tactic of distorting or silencing the sound altogether depending on whose perspective we’re viewing. It’s eerily beautiful to see a rambunctious crowd cheering their hearts out with no sound whatsoever. This is a fun twist on a tried and true formula.
Lead Me Home – Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk
Homelessness is one of the worst domestic problems in America today, with over half a million estimated to be experiencing it on any given day, a number that’s almost certainly an undercount for any number of logistical reasons. We’re the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and the #1 economy. My residential state of California, which would be the #5 world economy if it was its own country, accounts for at least 150,000. How is it that a land that is so rich can have such a huge number of its people living on the streets?
Well, unfortunately, Lead Me Home doesn’t really seek to answer that question. Instead, Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk decide to highlight the purely human element, which is equally valid. After all, these are people, not numbers. Jumping back and forth between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, three of the richest cities in the country, the film explores the personal travails of the people living below the bottom rung.
Some of the stories are truly heartbreaking, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. One poor woman is so addicted to drugs that she’ll sleep with an abusive “boyfriend” in his tent just to get through the days, even though she desperately wants to get clean. A mother of two (with a third on the way) does everything in her power to not let her children know what’s truly going on as she fights for whatever assistance and shelter placement she can get. A man who lives out of his car in essence chooses this life (but what choice is it, really?) because even though he works full time as a night janitor, he doesn’t make enough money to afford rent. He houses himself during the winter months and that’s it.
There are scenes where the homeless get screened by social workers trying to find places to put them, but there’s simply not enough to go around. Meanwhile, the film makes a point to cheekily look at high-rise luxury apartment buildings being put up, as well as noting some of the hypocrisies within the social programs themselves. For example, that mother of two isn’t eligible for housing assistance because her food stamps are counted as income for her, so between that and her job, she makes too much, pre-tax mind you, to get placement.
A lot of these stories are tragic and frustrating, but sadly, the most frustrating aspect of all is in the film itself. At the 39-minute mark (one short of the limit), the movie just ends. We never get any resolutions to any of the stories introduced in the film, just the same statistics about homelessness that we all know and mourn. We didn’t need to have happy endings for everybody. In fact I’d wager that’s most likely impossible. But even a brief postscript would have been appreciated. “So-and-so eventually got placement, but as of this film’s release, she’ll be back on the streets in six months if her situation doesn’t improve.” That’s all we ask. Just give us that tiny update to wrap things up. It’d be depressing, but at least it’d be something. We invested our time and emotions into these people that were put on screen. At least let us know how they’re going, or even if they’re still going.
The Queen of Basketball – Ben Proudfoot
Here’s a bit of trivia to lock in your brain for your next pub quiz. Who was the first woman drafted by the NBA? It was Lusia Harris, who starred at Delta State University (winning three national championships before the NCAA had an official women’s basketball tournament) in the 1970s and played on the first Olympic Women’s Basketball Team for the USA, winning silver in 1976. When she graduated, she was a late draft pick by the then-New Orleans Jazz, which made sense because she played her college ball in Mississippi. Such a late pick only guaranteed her a tryout rather than a roster spot, but Harris turned it down to raise a family and transition to a coaching career.
As far as barebones facts go, that’s the entirety of the movie, but The Queen of Basketball is so much more than that. First off, Harris herself (who sadly died back in January) is an absolute hoot. She has an amazing personality and on-camera presence. Just hearing her weave her anecdotes is fascinating, and she’s so naturally funny that you can’t help but smile the whole way through.
Even more amazing is the amount of archive footage that Ben Proudfoot was able to track down. Young girls learning the game of basketball today probably take things like the WNBA and Title IX for granted, but they just didn’t exist in Harris’ time. There was no NCAA Women’s Tournament back then, so she had to compete in the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), where Delta State initially lost to the defending champions before beating them the next year and going on for a three-peat of their own. As Harris herself puts it, “Somebody had to be first,” and it turned out to be her. She not only broke down barriers to women’s sports, but as a black woman in the Deep South, she was drawing bigger crowds than the men and earning people’s respect. That’s no small feat.
It’s a shame that she’s gone, because I could listen to her stories all day. As far as production values goes, this documentary from the Times is very basic, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining and essential.
Three Songs for Benazir – Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei
This is a film that works best with the benefit of hindsight, because as presented and likely intended, it’s basically just a sweet-looking cinematic greeting card. Focusing on an Afghan man named Shaista and his new bride, two of the three titular songs come in the first minute.
Shaista lives in a refugee camp inside the capital, Kabul, and is eager to join the nascent Afghan military, established by the United States after the 2001 invasion and ousting of the Taliban. However, as a newlywed, his family and tribe refuse to sign off on his enlistment (he has no official identification, so he has to have others vouch for him as not being a terrorist), insisting that he stay home and build a family with Benazir. After some admittedly gorgeous shots of snow falling in the desert and joy on the faces of nearly everyone involved, Shaista sings the third song, and the movie ends.
There’s really not all that much going on in this film. What really sells it is the 20/20 of current events. The film debuted in June of last year. Two months later, we completed our withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, with the Afghan government and army instantly collapsing under siege from the Taliban. This documentary, filmed over three years from 2017-2019, has no idea what’s on the horizon, so the potential dilemma of Shaista’s ambitions are rendered retroactively moot, and instead we can breathe a sigh of hopeful relief that he never joined, as he’d almost certainly be dead or in hiding right now. He may be still, but at least by never enlisting, he didn’t become an immediate target of the resurgent Taliban once they re-seized power.
When We Were Bullies – Jay Rosenblatt
Coincidences are amazing sometimes. It’s incredible how small our world really is. For example, I met my best friend/roommate when I started working at ESPN in 2006. But as it turned out, he already knew who I was, because while we went to different colleges, he used the sketch TV show I did at my school – along with other campus network programming – to help create and format a student TV network at his. Also, both of us were accepted for a Disney internship in our sophomore years. He went, I didn’t. Had I gone, we would have met each other four years earlier than we actually did, as we would have been assigned to the same department. The world is crazy like that sometimes.
That’s the spark that leads to a wonderfully pensive reckoning of past sins and reflection about how we can all better ourselves through learning different perspectives. That’s the heart of When We Were Bullies, which at least got a theatrical release alongside Playground before it comes to HBO post-Oscars.
Experimental director Jay Rosenblatt, while working on his 1994 film The Smell of Burning Ants, reunited with an old classmate, Richard Silberg, from his New York City elementary school all the way in California while searching for a narrator. It’s one of those oddball coincidences that we always love to tell stories about. They were 10-year-olds together, living on the same block, going to the same school, and nearly 30 years later, they met again as professionals on the other side of the country. As they worked together, Richard noticed some similarities in Jay’s film to an incident when they were kids. Burning Ants has a scene where a young boy is bullied, with several kids ganging up on him, and that triggered Richard’s memories of a similar moment when the entire fifth grade class beat up one of their classmates, also named Richard, but commonly called Dick.
This set off Jay’s memories as well, and after surprise contact from “Dick” after the movie was released, he spent the better part of the next 20 years going over the attack. He and Richard piece together some of the events that they can recall, Jay gets in touch with as many of his classmates as he possibly can (some have passed on), and even tracks down their old teacher, Mrs. Bobbe Bromberg, now in her 90s and living in a retirement home. Back in 1965 she was very strict, and was the one who eventually broke up the scene, dressing down the entire class in harsh fashion the next day. It wasn’t the first, or last, horrible instance of bullying she witnessed in her career.
Rosenblatt is amazingly introspective and good-humored in exploring and coming to terms with not just his own part in this wrongdoing, but in trying to contextualize every possible angle through creative use of interviews and stop-motion animation using cutouts from his class photo. Other classmates recall aspects of Dick’s personality, and openly discuss other ways they victimized him. Some only have vague memories. One person in particular is filled with regret, imagining how he’d react as a parent and grandparent if anyone hurt his children or grandchildren like he hurt Dick. Even Rosenblatt himself has to ponder if he’d have been in a similar situation had it not been for a personal tragedy the year before, as he and Dick had similar quirks, but people left him alone.
This is a truly earnest and thorough attempt to look at all sides of an issue and come out wiser. We’ve all dealt with bullying in one form or another. I went into some pretty detailed accounts when I reviewed Playground. So to see someone give an honest, heartfelt, genuine try at putting himself not just in the victim’s shoes, but in everybody’s, even 55 years after the fact, is comforting and inspiring. It shows that no matter how long it takes, we’re all trying to do better, to be better, and given all the downers in the world today, that’s a very reassuring thought.
1) When We Were Bullies
2) The Queen of Basketball
4) Lead Me Home
5) Three Songs for Benazir
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, Flee gets its unprecedented THIRD shot at Oscar glory, but a Best Picture nominee stands in its way. Could it win? Should it win? It’s International Feature!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you been able to see any of these films? Which subject matter is the most important to you? How much of your elementary school days do you remember? Let me know!